In many ways, virtual teams are an ongoing experiment, as they have only been fully embraced by companies in the past decade or so.
Remote working has showed healthy growth with an 80% increase in telecommunicating employees from 2005 to 2012. But what does it take to manage a successful remote team?
Since Help Scout currently operates on both ends of the spectrum, with in-office employees and a large remote team, we wanted to share some of our favorite ideas and best practices on making the most of remote work.
The case for virtual teams
In the wake of Yahoo!’s announcement that they would end their remote working program, a debate has started on whether or not virtual teams can really perform as well as those in the standard in-office environment.
Richard Branson says that one day, offices “will be a thing of the past,” but is there really that strong of a case to be made for remote work? There have certainly been a few big headlines on the subject:
A study from MIT Sloan was able to show that, “Dispersed teams can actually outperform groups that are colocated,” if the right sort of collaboration is in place. In addition, a more general case for virtual teams comes from a 2009 study by Cisco, which surveyed 2000 employees. Here are some of its findings:
“Approximately 69 percent of the employees surveyed cited higher productivity when working remote, and 75 percent of those surveyed said the timeliness of their work improved.”
While increased productivity is great, teamwork makes the dream work, so how did remote work affect employees' ability to communicate with each other? Here were the results from the Cisco study:
“By telecommuting, 83 percent of employees said their ability to communicate and collaborate with co-workers was the same as, if not better than, it was when working on-site.”
With a large majority of employees having similar or enhanced communication with their co-workers despite being physically removed from them, it's safe to say that remote working has the potential to be just as successful as in-office work for many companies; it just lies on the team in question to make the needed adjustments.
That brings us to our next question: what exactly are those adjustments? What do remote teams need to do differently in order to thrive?
Embrace the disadvantages of virtual teams
Many of the disadvantages of operating a virtual team are blessings in disguise. This point was well-made by Walter Chen in an article on remote work, where Walter highlights how:
Virtual teams must form bonds on deeper shared values (there is no ping-pong table to superficially unite people).
Remote workers, through being forced to work asynchronously, will have less of a chance of being pulled away from real work by mindless distractions.
Since communication cannot be done in person, virtual teams learn to communicate more deliberately since they cannot simply tap a co-worker on the shoulder.
The result is a team with fewer distractions and enhanced written communication skills for when things do need to be discussed. For the latter, tech really comes to the rescue. It's now easier than ever to create a messaging system that doesn't result in a flooded inbox.
Creating a hierarchical messaging plan
One of the advantages that comes from working remotely is the relative freedom to avoid bad meetings and other low-barrier distractions.
But communication still needs to occur on a regular basis, and oftentimes everything gets pushed to email, creating a bottleneck that results in remote teams spending more time in email than office workers (which is already at an all-time high).
Instead, remote teams should create a messaging hierarchy that offers guidelines on what sorts of messages are appropriate for which medium. Here's an example of how we do things at Help Scout:
Quick messages, questions, and updates: If you have a quick update for the team, or even something personal to share, don't send out an email CCing everybody. Instead, we encourage our team to share it within Slack, which is our team chat software of choice. The fact that it's instant also makes it good for emergencies.
Longer questions for one/two people: If you have a longer question or message that can wait until the end of the day, that's the time to send an email. If someone else on the team needs to hear about it, feel free to CC them; otherwise keep it between two people.
Extended team updates: If you want to share a lengthy update on what you've been doing over the week, or some bi-weekly/monthly metrics, we encourage you to write a post in Slack, which is our preferred virtual bulletin board for all of the important milestones that the team needs to see.
The tools you use matter less than the system you set up for your team. Just make sure that your remote workers have any easy way to get in touch with people that doesn’t require a regular onslaught of emails.
Make open organization gospel
Given that a personal sit-down with a co-worker is out of the question, it's important for virtual teams to stay organized on what everyone is doing. Here's a shortlist of tools that can help connect and organize your remote team.
Basecamp. Project management software that makes it easy to view/update projects and plan out what needs to be accomplished next.
Dropbox. A no-brainer. Dropbox makes sharing files across your company an effortless experience.
Draft. Draft makes collaborating on docs easy. Especially useful for longform writing (updates, blog posts, etc.)
Hello Sign. A far better option than, "Print, sign, scan, email." Getting things signed used to be a hassle for remote teams, but Hello Sign makes it simple.
Join.me. For those "must show" and can't tell scenarios, Join.me offers easy screensharing so that everyone on your team can view a presentation.
Whereby. Make sure your team has some sort of software that is regularly used for video chats. Many alternatives are out there, such as Google Hangouts, or Skype.
A tools list could go on forever, but remember that the most important thing is that you skew towards less friction. Anything you sign-up for beyond that should solve an important business problem, or you’re just adding more bloat to your work process.
Encourage clear, concise writing
Since most communication on a virtual team is done through text, it's important that you place emphasis on clear, concise writing. Some notable remote teams, like Basecamp, take this very seriously:
If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill your position, always hire the better writer. Assuming your candidates are fairly equally skilled and qualified overall, always hire the better writer.”
Buffer, another team very dependent on their distributed work force, has even placed clarity in communication in their company's core values, given how important it is to eschew misunderstandings when a team is working from around the globe. From Buffer's list of values:
You talk, code, design and write in a clear way instead of being clever. You don’t make assumptions, you instead ask that extra question to have the full picture.
Confusion is only a keystroke away for virtual teams, which makes clear, coherent written communication an essential skill.
Meeting in person still matters
Despite the many advantages of remote work, it is still a priority that your team meets face-to-face at some sort of regular interval. When it comes to building relationships and fostering trust, meeting someone face-to-face is still a fundamental part of the process.
Research from Harvard even concluded that a "connected team is a motivated team," in that few things motivate people more than a strong connection with teammates, which creates an obligation to do well. Regular meet-ups remain critical even after your first get together face-to-face:
“...in about 85 percent of companies, our research finds, employees' morale sharply declines after their first six months—and continues to deteriorate for years afterward.”
Use the time you have in person to really get to know your team outside of work. This will help to create unity and eliminate the "cog in the machine" feeling that causes discord and disconnect.
Going beyond traditional roles
As Dr. Michael Watkins highlights in a a 2013 article, virtual teams need to place special emphasis on going beyond roles and goals so that members have a better grasp on responsibilities:
"Make sure that there is clarity about work process, with specifics about who does what and when. Then periodically do 'after-action reviews' to evaluate how things are going and identify process adjustments and training needs.”
A conflict around "not my responsibility!" can become a much bigger disaster when the people involved cannot sit down with the boss to work it out. It's important for those in charge to make sure tasks and processes are laid out clearly for team members who work remotely.
Hiring the remote persona
As Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO of Zapier, explains in this great post, there are certain qualities and skills that become critical when you work remotely. He insists on hiring people who can work on projects without a lot of oversight. They also need to be people who can handle the solitary nature of remote work.
Last, but not least, Wade stresses the importance of trust that is necessary in remote work. He maintains the importance of hiring people you can trust and trusting the people you hire:
"Remote work stops working when you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself worrying what someone is doing, then you are spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product.”
Your hiring process should be influenced by the remote aspect of the position, in addition to the other traits you look for on your team. One of the best articles on hiring, the aptly named How to Hire by Sam Altman should help you get started.